TERRE HAUTE -- Wearing khaki-colored matching uniforms, more than 20 veterans inside a maximum-security prison stood tall to salute the flag of the United States at an event that welcomed them as new American Legion members.
These men, inmates at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility in Carlisle, are the new members of Post 398, which received its charter, convened its first meeting and installed its officers on Thursday night.
"We appreciate you wanting to be a part of our organization," Michael Brady, the American Legion Department of Indiana's membership chairman, told the inmates.
Wabash Valley Correctional Facility Post 398 formally joined 384 American Legion posts in Indiana, and it is the sixth post in a correctional facility, Brady said.
The American Legion hopes to put posts in correctional facilities in Indiana "where possible" because "we want to recognize the veterans ... they were veterans first," he added.In a ceremony that included reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, the preamble to the U.S. Constitution and acknowledgment of the "empty chair" for prisoners of war and the missing in action, Kevin Hinton, 7th District commander, presented the charter and led the swearing in of the new officers.
Inmate John Miksch was selected to be the new post vice commander. He served four years in the U.S. Army as an ammunition specialist and has been in the WVCF for about two years after being convicted for manufacturing methamphetamine.
He said joining the post is a way of giving back to the community.
"We're all here [in prison] for a reason and it [the reason] is damaging the community" in some way, he said.
"If we can give back, it never hurts."
Miksch had been a member of another Legion before.
"You want to have purpose and you want to have reason. ... Sometimes, in prison, you lose that purpose."
So "to have something to aim for is definitely good in this environment," he continued. "It's too easy to give up hope here."
Among the post's aims, he said, are to create a scholarship fund for a child who lost a parent in the military and the Wounded Warrior Project.
Newly installed Post Commander Derek Williams also spoke of big plans for the group.
One of them is to recruit more offender veterans to join the post and "give them a sense of camaraderie." In addition to fundraising projects and community service, he also hopes to be able to teach young offenders about leadership and "give them a sense of well-being."
Williams said he has completed two years of his 65-year sentence for a murder conviction. He served in the Navy for 21 years, and his tours of duty took him to Iraq twice.
On Thursday night, Williams led the new post's first meeting, a product of efforts spanning a year and a half. WVCF Community Services Director Michele Lincoln and chaplain Tim Tanner were both instrumental in securing the post.
After meeting several challenges along the way, Lincoln said she is happy the post has finally come to fruition. The formation of the group will "give them that chance to be together" and give back to the community. It is also a rehabilitation tool and helpful for inmates' re-entry to the community, she said.
"They're brothers," she said of the veterans.
Tanner said he noticed the members' pride in belonging to the post.
"No matter where they're at, they're still soldiers," he said.
Wabash Valley Correctional Facility Post 398 starts with 32 members, "and we plan on growing," Lincoln said.
There are 95 veterans in the WVCF, Hinton said.
"They still have love for our country. Even though they made mistakes to society, they still love it and they are proud to show their allegiance to the U.S.," Hinton said.